• Aliens, Abductions, and False Memories

    This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare a 1,000ish word post on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.


    Aliens, Abductions, and False Memories by Kelly Jent

    Have you ever had bad dreams? Maybe at some point you’ve felt compulsive or have woken up in the morning with back or neck problems. Or perhaps you have a strong aversion to or fear of things such as snakes, spiders, or heights. If you’ve been wondering what may have caused any of these peculiar symptoms, wonder no more – I know what the problem is. That’s right. I know what’s been causing all of your troubles. Aliens. You heard me. You. Have. Been. Abducted.

    Now, before you start telling me “no,” let me explain.

    You are not alone! Beginning around the late 1950’s abduction claims started receiving more attention. The number of claims exponentially grew after news of the Betty and Barney Hill case hit the media in the early 60’s. This number has continued to grow to now millions of people worldwide claiming to have been abducted by aliens. Approximately 2.5% or 7,900,000 people in the United States alone claim to have been abducted. These people (referred to as Experiencers or Abductees) experience symptoms such as the ones previously mentioned, along with a multitude of others including being allergic to animals, the inability to tolerate liars, and nose bleeds (very bizarre symptoms, I know). Among these is also the realization that there is a period of time that can’t be accounted for. This missing time piece is a prevalent “sign” and is typically the one that causes abductees to begin questioning what could have happened. They generally seek help from hypnotherapists, and during hypnotherapy, recall the repressed memories. The typical abduction story goes something like this:

    1. The Capture – abductees may report a weird sensation before being abducted. Hallucinations of flashing lights, odd sounds, and figures are not uncommon and may be accompanied by experiencing a tingling sensation. Many people report being beamed up into a craft by floating through walls and windows.
    2. Examinations – this appears to be the most traumatizing aspect of the abduction. People report memories of undergoing uncomfortable medical procedures against their will. These procedures are performed on them in an experimental nature and many focus on sex. Some abductees have tubes inserted in them, are forced to perform sexual acts, and forced to hold and nurture “hybrid” babies.
    3. The Return – abductees are returned to the exact place or a place of close proximity to where they were taken from. They have been brainwashed and instructed to forget that they were abducted. By returning to the same place, the only clue abductees have of the abduction is the possible realization that a few hours have passed unaccounted for.

    So, now that the initial shock of your abduction has worn off, if you’re beginning to question the validity of these claims, and hopefully you are, and you’re beginning to think that they are a little far-fetched, you’d be right. You see, there are multiple other empirically supported explanations for the creation and recollection of these bizarre memories. Some of these explanations include sleep paralysis, abnormal temporal lobe activity, and false memories. For this post, though, I am going to focus on why these false memories are created and accepted.

    Have you ever been telling a story and in the middle of it someone who was present during the original event stops and corrects you on a specific part? The two of you may exchange a few comments like “No, I remember, I swear this happened” before finally agreeing to disagree on that certain aspect of the story. This common occurrence depicts two different recollections of the same event – so which one is right? False memories can simply be considered memories that are recalled but never happened.

    You see, memory does not work like a recording. You can’t push “play” and replay the same event over and over with no variation. Rather, memory is incredibly malleable. In other words, our memories are fragile and unreliable. We are constantly being exposed to new information, and this acquisition of new information contaminates the original memory of the event, reconstructing it. In fact, memory is so suggestible that whole events have been created and embedded in the minds of unsuspecting people. I’m not talking about some abstract event – I’m talking about convincing people that something had previously happened to them. Starting to sound familiar? If people remember an event that never happened, such as being lost in a mall as a child or riding in a hot air balloon, is it really that unlikely that these abduction stories may just be a form of false memories?

    Health Care

    Dr. Richard McNally of Harvard was intrigued by abductees and how sane they are. He conducted a study and measured physiological symptoms of abductees such as heart rate and facial muscle tension. McNally discovered that when recalling their abductions the abductees’ physiological reactions were as intense as that of Vietnam vets recalling their war experiences. Now you may ask, “Okay, if these are just false memories and did not actually happen why are some “abductees” severely affected by them?” I’m glad you asked. There are some noteworthy similarities that have been found when studying abductees. In addition to the suggestible nature of the mind, these factors contribute to the recollection and complete acceptance of alien abductions which subsequently leads to these intense reactions when recalling the traumatic stories. In other words, believing it makes it real to them, regardless of external validity. McNally found that the more of these factors that are present in someone, the more likely they are to create false memories of an abduction:

    • Endorse New Age ideas (astrology, tarot cards, ghosts, etc.)
    • Familiar with alien abduction narratives
    • Experience sleep hypnosis and hypnopompic hallucinations
    • They are prone to fantasy and have vivid imaginations before “treatment”, therefore;
    • They are more highly suggestible during hypnosis and more likely to create these pseudo memories, especially in the presence of an authoritative figure

    Hypnotherapy appears to be the leading cause of remembering these abduction stories, and while hypnosis increases memory output, it does not increase memory quality. In other words, when being hypnotized you will remember a lot more information, but it is not accurate information. For example, when being encouraged by an authoritative figure after a hypnotic treatment, fantasy prone people were more likely to recall living a past life. This illustrates the suggestibility of the mind and exacerbation of symptoms when in the presence of an authority figure who confirms your beliefs. Shermer (2002) covers the literature and says that it is not possible to “recover” memories as these hypnotherapists claim; rather, “memory is a complex phenomenon involving distortions, deletions, additions, and sometimes complete fabrication.” Needless to say, it would be pretty easy for a hypnotherapist to promote the creation of these memories in susceptible people.

    If the false memory spiel is not quite doing it for you, one final argument that is brimming with years of scientific evidence is found in the fields of astronomy, physics, and biology. If you can support your abduction claim after considering those three subjects let me know and maybe we can revisit this subject. But until then rest assured that you have, in fact, not been abducted and rather it is most likely a mind game.

    Category: PseudosciencePsychologyScienceSkepticismTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com
    • kraut2

      What about sleep paralysis? Not very thorough in your study.

      “. It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations (such as an
      intruder in the room) to which one is unable to react due to paralysis,
      and physical experiences (such as strong current running through the
      upper body). One theory is that it results from disrupted REM sleep, which normally induces complete muscle atonia to prevent the sleeper from acting out his or her dreams. Sleep paralysis has been linked to disorders such as narcolepsy, migraines, anxiety disorders, and obstructive sleep apnea; however, it can also occur in isolation.[1][2]”


      I am very familiar with it – and I have experienced grey beings walking through walls in this state, trying to take me away and being unable to resist.
      However – I never once put it down to aliens. Despite the phenomenon not being described in the early seventies I was aware that the story played in my brain not exterior to it.

      • Well, one can’t really go into every possible explanation for why people think they are abducted in 1000 words 🙂

        I’ve actually had sleep paralysis/hallucinations for the vast majority of my life, waxing and waning during various periods. It’s terrible (for me, at least) and I can easily see how some people might use that experience to develop a belief in being abducted.

        • kraut2

          It is actually terrible as in this state you struggle to resist but are unable to move at all. You just have to let it happen. Luckily at some point you wake up completely and find – nothing.
          I had this experience usually taking a nap after University classes in the late afternoon at home before doing the coursework.

          BTW – during that time at some points I was actually reading about the famous “project blue book” “The UFO Experience – A Scientific Inquiry”, by J. Allen Hynek

    • ke Liu

      repeated memory would be delusional therefore the testimony, at least most of them, can not be very accurate.

    • CRTorres

      I enjoyed reading your post. I found it interesting that abductees are allergic to animals. I like the comment that it is possible alien sex. Maybe I need to be abducted. I thought it was great to throw in the analogy for false memories. I feel that with is statement alone you really connected with your readers. Well done.



      • kellyjent

        That’s the thing about the symptoms of “abductees”. Most of the symptoms (allergic to animals, bad dreams, back or neck pain, inability to tolerate liars, compulsive feeling at some point, etc.) are all so general, they can apply to almost everyone – some more than others -… because the abductees are normal people. These symptoms of being abducted don’t necessarily mean anything; however, when added to the claim of being abducted, they become these weighted events/traits that now have all the meaning in the world. I wonder how many people who are most likely already fantasy prone (and have not made any abduction claim yet) start interpreting these events as possible abduction symptoms and then end up “remembering” their abduction(s). OR if more people remember their abduction first, and then start attributing the symptoms to that.

    • Kaitie McElroy

      I think the discussion of false memories as one explanation was excellent. You provided great detail on how false memories could make you think you had been abducted by aliens. You also put together a good list of alternative explanations for abductions.

    • jordannpyle

      For a minute, I thought I was about to have to contact an alien abducted support group due to the large amount of criteria I just met. Then I quickly realized, I probably just had a vivid dream I mistook for a memory. It astounds me that 7,900,000 people in the United States alone claim to have been abducted. Like, really people? If that many people have been abducted in the US alone, I am pretty sure someone would’ve found legit evidence to back it up. It was very cool that you showed the common symptoms those abducted seem to all have and how literally everyone in the world has probably have had the same symptoms in their lifetime. This post was hilarious and very informative!

      • CatherineD

        Jordan, that is exactly what I was thinking! If that many people had truly been abducted, don’t you think just one of the aliens would have slipped up by now and left some evidence behind for us?

      • kellyjent

        I don’t remember if you saw our pseudoscience fair booth, but we had that statistic along with others related to aliens and UFO’s as a matching game. Other percentages included:

        72% of Americans believing that the government is not telling the public everything it knows about UFO activity

        68% of people think that the government knows more about extraterrestrial life than they are letting on

        56% of Americans think that UFO’s are real and not just in the imagination

        48% believe that UFO’s have visited earth in some form

        These were taken from a poll in 2002. It’s pretty sad to think that such a large majority of people think that this information 1) exists, and 2) is being hidden from us. Also, I just want to say that UFO’s in this context are talking about alien spacecrafts… not just unidentified flying objects. It was interesting to see what students thought when asked to place the correct percentage to the statement.

    • SStice28

      Your discussion on false memories, and the factors pertaining to changing memories was quite good. My theories of learning and cognition class covered this rather recently, actually, and it would make sense that people would remember their “abduction” in such vivid detail. I would actually categorize these memories as flashbulb memories because of how vivid and powerful they are for these people, but as you know, even flashbulb memories can be changed, especially when the abductees are exposed to information that fits with their version of events.

    • hellokitty69

      Alien abduction is about the least harmful of all “recovered” memories. While I get that those “memories” might be traumatic, at least the “accused” is a non-existent person. Recovered memories that lead to falsely accusing actual people of wrong-doing is a much more serious situation, so it’s good that this post focuses on how unscientific recovered memories are.

      Edit: Don’t know why I referred to aliens as a non-existent “person.” Stupid Sci-Fi.

      • kellyjent

        Yeah, it may be the least harmful “recovered” memory for other people involved (or not involved because they’re aliens); however, like you said, for the person remembering this event it can sometimes be very traumatic which in itself can be very harmful. Like I mentioned in the blog, when physiological measures were taken on these “victims”, the reactions were just as intense as Vietnam vets recalling their war experiences. For someone displaying such intense reactions to an event that never occurred, I can only imagine how long-lived these fears must be – especially with what we know about characteristics of “abductees” being prone to fantasy and believing in other fictitious ideas, and how unwilling people are (in general) to sway from their original ideas even when presented with empirical evidence saying otherwise. However, yes, it is absolutely a good thing that other people are not being caught up in these claims and being falsely accused.


      Wow, that was really well done, and entertaining as well. I especially appreciated the information you shared about the plasticity of memory and how easy it is to create a false memory. I’ve actually known people (well, one person) who told the same BS story about an event so many times for so long that she ended up actually believing it was true, and called other people who were there with her outright liars when they tried to refute her. I wonder if some of the people who claim to have been abducted are drama-seekers who just feel that their lives are boring and unsatisfying, so they make up these stories & end up believing them to seem more interesting or something. Hmmm…

    • CodyB

      I heard an abduction story from someone I met at work a few years back. He claimed to have been abducted from his room as a preteen. As I got to know him, I came to learn that he had experienced repeated abuses throughout his young life. I started to wonder if the pain of those abuses had led him to basically develop a more managable memory by transforming the image of his abuser into an alien image with a backstory to support it. I am definitely not qualified to say that this is for sure the case, but I can see how a malleable memory could allow for such a distortion.

      • kellyjent

        That’s interesting that you brought that up. As I was reading about aliens and abductions, I came across the link to childhood abuse (mostly sexual abuse, but I suppose any abuse could be considered) as one possible reason or contributor to making abduction claims. I don’t know enough about this to state for certain, but it appears to be a controversial connection, and there may be more of a link between episodes of sleep paralysis and recovered sexual abuse – which could lead to abduction memories since sleep paralysis is highly connected with them.
        The below study divides participants into four conditions: repressed (sexual abuse) memory, recovered memory, continuous memory, and the control condition with no memory of childhood abuse. Essentially, the three groups claiming to have experienced childhood sexual abuse had a significantly higher rate of sleep paralysis compared to the control condition. Obviously I don’t know anything about the history of your friend; but it would be interesting to see if he also experienced episodes of sleep paralysis.


    • Christina Smith

      This was a very well done and interesting post. It’s always somewhat entertaining to me when people cannot explain something, that automatically means aliens! Instead of, you know, much more logically sound and scientific answers.

    • Lauren Gaudreau

      It’s unfortunate that so many people believe in alien abduction, despite all of the conflicting evidence. I was talking to a patient a few weeks ago about this particular topic, he was absolutely positive that this was real, and everything in New Mexico happened. He even informed me that he was there during this time (yet couldn’t recall the year). Even though people like you write scientifically supported papers/posts, people will continue to believe what they think is true.

    • Scott Sims

      False memories are so interesting. It is a little scary to me that we rely so much on peoples memories in so many high stakes areas. I also don’t like how hypnotherapy is propagated so much through the media. Great post jent!

    • ang

      What happens when a abducted person remembers after her mother points out how dirty you are when you went to sleep clean with no dirt scratches and the girl even find an object in her that the doctor was bathelled by as there was no scar tissue. They continue to interact with her is this possible to be false thoughts ?

      • Very possible, ang. The thing about false memories is that they FEEL accurate and real, and the more you think about them, the more real they often seem.

    • aramos170

      Thanks Dr. Lack. This was an interesting article and to the point. In my latest publication, I mention the false memories syndrome.